Christmas is my favourite time of year in the theatre. We always used to go to Nottingham Playhouse panto as a family. It was an annual event. I enjoyed seeing the same familiar faces onstage each year, you felt like you really knew those actors. I know that’s one of the main reasons panto audiences return to the Playhouse every year.
2017 is particularly exciting because it’s Cinderella, which is a popular title with both children and adults. The combination of the comedy from the ugly sisters and the magic of Cinderella’s transformation and romance with the prince make for great entertainment. I saw a run-through in the rehearsal room last week and it’s a great production. We’ve created two new chorus roles this year for recent graduates; it’s a great opportunity for them to learn the craft from the old[er] pros. And there are also two boys in the young people’s chorus who are all local children, which is something I was very keen on. Hopefully other boys from all backgrounds attending with their families or schools will see them on stage and be inspired to participate in the arts.
I should perhaps mention that the reason I have a particular attachment to pantomime is because I played Wishee Washee in Aladdin at the Oldham Coliseum when I first graduated from drama school, which Kenneth Alan Taylor wrote. He keeps threatening to get me back on stage, (rest assured this won’t be happening any time soon), although I do know the punch-lines to all the gags because they haven’t changed in the last 34 years, (sorry Kenneth).
Pantomime brings in a wide range of audiences – families, adults, schools, groups of friends. It was thinking about pantomime that inspired me to programme Holes in April, based on the hit novel by Louis Sachar. The book is read by young people and in schools, but I’ve also seen adults reading it on the train. Like all pantomimes, Holes is a story of an underdog, Stanley, who doesn’t have many friends and whose family is affected by poverty. Stanley finds himself in unusual circumstances and is forced to go on a dangerous journey where he learns he’s responsible for shaping his own destiny. Some of our audience currently only visit the theatre once a year at Christmas and it was important to me to offer something else in the year that had the same balance of comedy, music and theatrical magic. If someone loves panto then they’ll also love Holes.
Pantomime isn’t our only offer over the festive season because we have Town Mouse and Country Mouse in the Neville Studio, which is for a slightly younger audience (3 – 8 year olds) who perhaps aren’t quite ready to watch the panto yet. It’s much shorter and allows children to discover the joy of theatre in a more relaxed environment. Last year’s production The Princess and the Frog received incredible reviews and Town Mouse and Country Mouse will be just as magical. There’s lots of action, music and singing, and the children can interact with the performers.
I won’t be getting much of a break over Christmas as I’m preparing for some of our 2018 shows. Our Country’s Good in March is a huge production with a big cast that the whole organisation is currently planning for. The production of Tommy in April, which was also part of the Ramps on the Moon project, was one of the best shows I saw this year and quite rightly won Best Touring Production at the UK Theatre Awards.
We’ve also started talking about casting for our revival of Kindertransport next autumn that Fiona Buffini is directing after her wonderful production of All My Sons. I’m also looking forward to the world premiere of Lava by acclaimed rising playwright James Fritz, which we’re co-producing with our associate company Fifth Word in the Neville Studio next spring.
More immediately I will be preparing for Wonderland, my first show as Artistic Director. Rehearsals begin early January and we’re auditioning at the moment. The play is set in the 1980s in north Nottingham and tells the story of Welbeck Colliery during the miners’ strikes. I’ve been meeting lots of local actors and it’s clear that they connect passionately to the characters and the story so I’m sure audiences will too. I’ve been spending a great deal of time planning with the production’s creative team because it’s a hugely ambitious set design. The Production Manager says it’s unlike any design he’s ever seen on the Playhouse stage before, which is very exciting and a little daunting. With our cast of 10 men and the massive set and all the songs and movement, rehearsals are going to really busy. Beth Steel, the writer, and I have also been meeting to talk through the script. Beth’s dad was a miner so the play is honest and raw, but also incredibly funny, moving and exciting, she knows how to write a good story!
I want to take the opportunity to wish all of our audiences and loyal supporters a very happy festive season and a fantastic 2018. I look forward to seeing you at the pantomime and in February for my first show, Wonderland.